Thierry Henry’s wonderful little cross into Juan Pablo Angel early last Saturday against Houston removed any doubt about it: The Red Bulls have put together the most formidable strike tandem in MLS history.
But that wonderful demonstration was more than just the heralding of greatness to come. It was something we see too rarely in MLS: a cross with purpose and definition.
Watch Thierry Henry's cross to Juan Pablo Ángel
Henry’s delivery from the wing into Ángel needed subtlety, and not just a little bit of accuracy. From in close (at the left edge of the penalty area) Henry supplied a cross that would be ever-to-easy to overcook; we see examples of it every Saturday in MLS.
Let’s be frank: The standard of crossing in MLS is not where anyone would like to see it. Diagonal balls linger to the point of uselessness, crosses sky into the stands despite the absence of pressure, long balls played without an apparent target, etc.
Sometimes it’s down to ability, but often it’s down to mentality and a lack of tactical purpose and definition. Too many times players in wide areas are just banging balls willy-nilly into the penalty area. Sounders manager Sigi Schmid said as much recently, admonishing some of his players about such pointless use of possession.
In some cases, it has to do with ability of the flank midfielders and the fullbacks. In the bigger picture, that’s an issue that needs addressing in the offseason or in the summer transfer window. But until it gets addressed, teams need to make tactical adjustments on the field. Simply put, the offensive plan need not include a supply of balls flying in from the wing if the service will be poisonous to the attack.
How to accomplish that? Well, some teams don’t even try to cross the ball regularly, which is a limiting but viable offensive approach. Toronto’s attack ignores width right now. Julian de Guzman starts the attacks centrally and Dwayne De Rosario often begins on the left but works reliably into the middle, and those two constitute the bulk of the offensive threat right now at BMO. With limited options on the wings, Toronto aren’t hitting many bad crosses—because they aren't hitting many crosses at all.
Other teams try to hit crosses but can’t be consistently good at it. Frequently it’s because players fail to take the simpler route: the ball driven hard into the penalty area. When it’s hit early, that ball causes defenders fits because their positioning isn’t settled.
That’s exactly what happened to Colorado’s dependable center back Julien Baudet. He was chasing back toward his own goal as Dallas’ Jair Benitez fired a centering pass into the 6-yard box. Baudet knocked the ball into his own goal to give the road team an important, early lead.
Some players need help on the practice field understanding what they can do and what still needs fine tuning before use in a match. There’s little point in trying to hit balls that you can't hit.
If it’s a diagonal ball, in particular, it needs to be a good one. One service technique that we tend to see a lot in MLS is the cross from the wing about 25 yards from the end line. It can be an effective service (Landon Donovan is good at it, for instance), but it must be delivered with precision and shape. It needs to land six to eight yards from goal with good pace—and that’s harder than it sounds.
That’s why some crosses that do have purpose and do have an intended target have little chance. At one point of Chivas USA’s win over Columbus, Rodolfo Espinoza lofted a ball ostensibly bound for Justin Braun. But the emerging Chivas USA striker was bracketed by two good center backs, big Chad Marshall and bigger Andy Iro. Braun really had no chance. And the ball was easy pickings for goalkeeper William Hesmer anyway because it didn’t have any zip. So there was never really any reason to hit it in the first place.
None of this is lost on some MLS coaches. In Houston, Corey Ashe has never established himself as a regular in the Houston lineup because, in his fourth MLS season, he still can't deliver a consistent, well-defined cross.
His first effort after coming in as a sub at Robertson Stadium on Saturday sailed harmlessly long, even though he was relatively unchallenged. Later, Ashe used his speed to beat Red Bulls fullback Chris Albright, but his cross was just haphazardly tossed into the penalty area rather than labeled for a target at the near post or the far post (like the beautiful one supplied a bit earlier by Lovel Palmer, who had drifted wide from his central spot).
There are some good crossers in MLS, just too few of them. Obviously, when healthy, David Beckham is one of the best crossers the game has ever seen. In Columbus, Guillermo Barros Schelotto hits wonderful balls every week, like the pinpoint centering pass into Eddie Gaven on Saturday.
Gaven had inside position on Chivas USA defender Michael Umana and was making a mad dash for the near post. Schelotto saw the glistening opportunity and put a ball right where Gaven needed it. (Gaven, sadly, was injured on the play as Umaña bundled into him from behind in desperation.)
So good crosses can and do happen each week in MLS, just not as often as we might like. Which is why Henry’s pass to Ángel was more than just a simple cross—it was the preamble to something special.